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How to Determine Competitive Positioning for Your Marketing Plan

The competitive positioning portion of a marketing plan describes the market, what's happening in the market, and what your brand is known for and how that compares with the other key brands in the marketplace.

How to Determine Competitive Positioning for Your Marketing Plan

How to Determine Competitive Positioning for Your Marketing Plan 1920 1271 Gravity Strategic Marketing

The competitive positioning portion of a marketing plan describes the market, what’s happening in the market, and what your brand is known for and how that compares with the other key brands in the marketplace.

The competitive positioning section of your marketing plan outlines how you’ll differentiate your offering and carve out a spot in the competitive landscape – putting your stake in the ground, and winning mindshare in the marketplace. In other words, being known for a certain “something.”

Your positioning strategy considers all aspects of your market: its size, characteristics, demographics and psychographics, how you deliver value, and how you stack up against the competition.

At the core, your positioning strategy defines what you want to be known for, and how you plan to achieve that over a 5- to 10-year timeframe.

Competitive Positioning

What sets your product, service and company apart from your competitors? What value do you provide and how is it different than the alternatives? Competitive positioning is about defining how you’ll differentiate your offering and create value for your market. It’s about carving out a spot in the competitive landscape and focusing your company/product/service to deliver on that strategy. Your ultimate goal is to win mindshare in the market — to be known as a “certain something” in the market’s mind.

A good positioning strategy starts with a market profile. To whom are you selling? What does a typical customer look like? Think about:

  • Industries
  • Geographical regions
  • Company size, stage, ownership structure
  • Who makes the buying decisions?
  • Who else influences the buying decisions?

Your competitive positioning strategy is the foundation of your entire business – it’s the first thing you should pin down if you’re launching a new company or product/service. It’s also important when you’re expanding or looking for a new edge.

Your marketing plan should include a summary of your markets and your competitive positioning strategy. Here you’ll:

  • Document the size of your market.
  • List the trends in the market.
  • Describe the companies. products or services in your market as well as the individuals who make the purchase decision.
  • Determine whether your market is in the introductory, growth, mature, or declining stage of its life. This lifecycle stage affects your entire marketing strategy.

This will help you determine your high-level positioning strategy, the key factor driving your entire business growth strategy.

Define Market Size

The first step to creating a market profile is to evaluate the total market size and opportunity. You’ll need access to as much market numerical data as possible. If you sell multiple products/services, or if you sell to multiple markets, you may wish to create a separate positioning strategy for each one.

Your goal is to make as complete a market profile as possible. B2C companies always perform detailed market research before taking a product to market. Many small to mid-size B2B companies don’t have strong market data available when making strategic decisions, which makes it difficult for them understand their true positioning.

If you’re researching a portion of a market, or a vertical or sub-market, repeat this task for as many markets as you need. Depending on your situation, you may wish to purchase market reports or hire an outside research firm. If you’re pressed for time, start with estimates and iterate over time.

Begin by estimating the total number of potential customers in your market. This number may be difficult to estimate if you’re in an early-stage growth market. If you’re in a mature market without room for growth, it will simply be the total number of unit sales in the existing market.

If you need to hire a market research firm, here are ten global innovative firms listed in the GreenBook Research Industry Trends report:

You might also consider joining the Marketing Research Association or searching the Blue Book Marketing Research Services Directory which lists specialty marketing research companies around the world.

If you’re completing your market research in-house and don’t have the budget to hire an outside firm, you’ll most likely need to compile information from numerous sources. Here are a few helpful general information sources on the Web:

Offline resources include:

  • U.S. Census Bureau (or equivalent bureaus in other countries)
  • Professional trade organizations
  • Professional industry associations
  • Chambers of commerce
  • Analyst reports

If you’re pressed for time, you can always estimate and iterate as you gather more data. For example, if you sell 10,000 units per year in your market, and you estimate that you own 5% of that market, a solid starting estimate is that your market has 200,000 potential customers (10,000 / .05).

Note: If you’re creating a new market, the total existing unit sales won’t be an accurate representation of your total number of potential customers in the market, so you’ll have to estimate. How many customers might the total market have in X years in the future?

Then determine the total annual sales (revenue) for the product or service in your market. For example, if you sell a red widget, what is the total spending on red widgets in your market each year? A B2B example would be that there were $4.5 billion of sales of CRM software in the U.S. in 2016. A B2C example would be that there were $750 million of sales of hiking boots in the U.K. in 2016.

Typical Company/Customer Profile in Market

What does a typical company or customer look like in your market? If you’re B2B, list the annual revenue, number of employees, and years in business. If you’re B2C, list the demographical data.

Market Characteristics and Trends

Next, consider the characteristics and trends in your markets. The below questions are meant to get you thinking. You don’t have to answer them all — simply read through them and consider what is relevant to your markets.

  • What’s currently happening in your market? Is your market growing or contracting? At what rate?
  • Is your market well-established in terms of number of customers and potential revenue? Or are there new opportunities?
  • What’s influencing the market expansion/contraction currently? Are there any new developments that are affecting the market?
  • Who makes the ultimate decision to buy from you?
  • Who else is involved in the buying decisions (the “influencers”)?

Is your market actively seeking a solution to the pain that your product or service alleviates? In B2B, for most companies, there is a mix of people actively seeking a solution, people wanting a solution if one were to be presented to them (but not actively seeking one), and people who have the pain (whether they’ve realized it or not). B2C is similar. For example, for a cold medicine, the buyers have pain (a cold) and are actively seeking a solution. For a teeth whitener, many people in the market might not be actively seeking the product, but might be interested if it were affordable, easy and effective.

Estimate the percentages of each scenario. If you don’t know, start with a guess, and refine it as you are able. All four combined should total 100%.

  • Percentage mix of people/companies actively seeking a solution in the market
  • Percentage mix of people/companies desiring a solution in the market
  • Percentage mix of people/companies with a pain but not desiring a solution in the market
  • Percentage mix of people/companies with no pain in the market

What are the trends in your industry and/or market? The above should give you some insights. Trends are important because they can translate into new opportunities. For example, is the industry shifting toward a new type of solution? Are people just learning about your product or service? Or have people yet to discover their pain? And what is driving the trend? Examples include:

  • Technology development
  • Economic conditions
  • Social trends
  • Government policies
  • Competitors
  • Supply and demand
  • International influences

Determine Market Lifecycle Stage

The market’s maturity impacts how you should approach your market and position your company, product or service against your competitors. Reference the market data and market characteristics from above to help determine the lifecycle stage if it’s not apparent.

Once again, if you sell a single product or service, you could have different lifecycle stages for different markets.

Market Lifecycle StageDescription
IntroductionThe product/service and market are completely new. If you’re not the first, you’re the second or third entrant. Market data may not be well-defined. The market is not actively seeking your solution. Decision makers and influencers vary from company to company if you’re B2B, and few consumers are aware of your product/service if you’re B2C.
GrowthThe total market revenue is increasing rapidly and new competitors are consistently entering the market. Companies are starting to seek out your offering, and some are already buying from your competitor. Decision makers and influencers are becoming clearer for B2B, and the majority of consumers are aware of your product/service if you’re B2C, but many companies/people are not familiar with your or your competitors’ products/services. This stage is like a land grab.
MaturityThere are a number of strong competitors with similar products/services. Sales growth has slowed and is probably in the single digits. Decision makers and influencers are well-established if you’re B2B, and most consumers already have a solution in place if you’re B2C.
DeclineRevenue is declining as customers migrate to newer solutions to their problems. Companies offer heavy discounts, discontinue these products, or develop entirely new markets/uses for the product. Decision makers and influencers are well-established and completely control the buying process if you’re B2B. Consumers have used your product/service and many have little interest in purchasing more of it. The primary way to land new customers is to compete on price.

Select Positioning Approach

Now it’s time to put everything together to determine your high-level approach to positioning yourself in the market. The market stage you’ve chosen will help you determine this as there are common approaches to the market based on its stage.

Review the characteristics of your lifecycle stage and the typical positioning approach for each below. You may decide that the typical positioning approach is right for you, or you may wish to modify it.

StageCharacteristicsTypical Positioning Approach
IntroductionAs the first or second mover in the market, focus on creating a market for your new product or service. From a positioning standpoint, you should focus on building awareness for the solution in general, rather than positioning yourself against other early entrants.You first need to convince prospects that this is the right solution altogether. You’ll build awareness among “early adopters” and educate them about how your solution is new, different and better. You’re “selling the problem,” not your offering.
GrowthDuring the growth stage, your objective is to build preference for your product/service versus those of your competitors.Your positioning approach should focus on why prospects should buy from you and why your offering is better, or on building a strong following for your brand. 
MaturityIn a mature market, price becomes more critical in the customer’s decision-making process because there is substantial competition and less differentiation among products.Your positioning will still focus on why your offering is better, but price will play a more important role than in earlier stages.
DeclineAs a market declines, the number of competitors decreases as larger competitors move resources toward other markets.You can either continue to focus on price, or try to create niches, while innovating to increase market share and/or increase price.

Based on your market size, characteristics and stage of growth, what approach should you take?

Market Segments/Personas

When you segment your market or create buyer personas, you can do a better job addressing the specific problems faced by the people or companies within each segment. And when you speak to specific problems and needs, you can greatly improve all of your sales and marketing efforts.

Some marketers refer to these groups as their market segments. Others prefer to call them their customer or buyer personas, which are essentially a detailed description of a person who represents a typical buyer or market segment. Choose whichever you’re most comfortable with.

  • Market segmentation: Grouping your market into smaller homogeneous subgroups to create efficiencies in marketing messages and campaigns.
  • Buyer personas: A detailed profile that represents a target buyer in a particular segment.

You have a few different options for your segmentation strategy. It can focus on:

  • The problems a group of customers face and how they use a product/service
  • The profiles of the buyers themselves
  • Traditional criteria such as industry or geography

How to Define Your Segments

Consider the market feedback and evaluate the problems, pains or challenges your customers and prospects face. You may end up with as few as one or two problems or as many as five to ten.

Next, for each problem, evaluate the issues below. It’s tempting to slip into a “sales mode” when thinking about these issues. Instead, be very objective and put yourself in the shoes of a prospect who doesn’t know about your offering.

Here are issues to consider:

  • How do your prospects attempt to solve this problem?
  • How do your competitors solve this problem?
  • Is there a difference between the way you solve the problem and the way your competitors solve the problem? If yes, what is it?
  • What do your prospects and customers value most?
  • How valuable are you to your customers (in their mind, not in yours)?
  • What are the characteristics (gender, age, family status, interests) of the decision maker?
  • What additional things can you do to earn/continue to earn business?
  • Why do they buy from you?

For example, you may say that the prospect will get “better service” from you versus the alternative. Yet how will the prospect know that up front? And is it truly the reason they will buy in the first place? Be honest and tough. You’ll end up with a better positioning strategy for it.

If you’re B2C, you may find that certain segments buy for a reason you couldn’t anticipate. For example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller The Tipping Point, he discusses how a handful of trendsetters decided that the boring Hush Puppies shoes were cool, creating a word-of-mouth trend that created a strong national brand fueled by an unusual buyer persona.

Think about the issues you listed above and the companies/people that fall into those categories. These may end up becoming your market segments or personas. Now consider the examples below of segmentation criteria. (Note – these are for both B2B and B2C. Select which are most appropriate to you.)

Product Usage

  • Company problem experienced
  • Usage rate (frequency)
  • Usage rate (size or volume of order)
  • Brand loyalty
  • Percent of budget your product accounts for

Demographics

  • Industry
  • Department that makes the decision
  • Geography
  • Company size (revenue, employees, etc.)
  • Stage of growth
  • Age
  • Marital status
  • Education
  • Household size
  • Income/socio-economic status
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion

Persona

  • Role in company
  • Problem person is tasked with resolving
  • Experience level
  • Department characteristics
  • Age group
  • Personal interests
  • Life stage

Do any of these criteria work for you? Remember that you’re trying to group your market so that you can speak directly to their problems. You might find that you segment your markets using multiple criteria of different types. That’s okay. Think of your segments as tags applied to each customer. While you’d prefer to have only one tag per customer, the reality is that you might have multiple.

The final step is to profile each segment or persona (whichever term you choose to use). For each one, add as much detail as possible. The more detail, the better you’ll be able to position your company, product or service to own some of the mindshare of the market.

For each of your segments or personas, describe a typical company/person in this segment. If you’re B2B, focus more on the business angles. If you’re B2C, focus more on the personal angles.

  • What are their problems?
  • What do they need, to solve their problems?
  • Who in the organization is impacted by the problem?
  • Who ultimately makes the decision to buy?
  • What are the characteristics (gender, age, family status, interests) of the decision maker?
  • Who else influences the decision?
  • What process will the company use to make the decision?
  • What are their alternatives to buying from you?
  • What will they get from you that they won’t get from the alternative options? (Be honest and tough!)
  • What’s their primary motivation to purchase?
  • What are their emotional triggers? (For example, can you appeal to their emotions to encourage them to buy?)
  • Is there an “a-ha” factor that you can focus on in your marketing? (For example, is there a fact or a message you can deliver that will help them quickly understand why your product is better/different?)

When you’ve defined and profiled your customer segments, you have a valuable tool that you’ll reference throughout all of your marketing efforts. Share this information with your team and refer to it frequently – it will help you speak clearly to your market and improve your results.

Competitive Analysis

When considering your competitive positioning, think about all of your competitors. Consider the competition within each market and think on a national, regional and local level if appropriate.

It’s important to understand the competitive landscape prior to selecting the mindshare that you want to own. The competitive landscape can shed light on new opportunities or identify mindshare already owned by a competitor that you might never win.

Also consider all three types of competitors:

  • Direct – They offer solutions/products that are similar to your own.
  • Indirect – Their solutions/products are different from yours, but can potentially provide relief for the market.
  • Future – They could easily expand their offerings to compete with yours.

Some early-stage companies fail to properly plan for indirect or future competitors. Microsoft is a competitor that commonly enters markets after a startup has proven viability for a product. Because of its distribution and pricing power (i.e., the ability to bundle products and give them away for free), it can completely reshape technology markets in a short period of time.

Then, determine the criteria you’ll use to rate your competitors and yourself. Different companies in different industries require different criteria, so choose the most effective criteria for you and your market.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Price
  • Product Quality
  • Product Uniqueness
  • Product Features
  • Product Effectiveness
  • Service Level
  • Innovation
  • Market Share
  • Distribution Channels/Power
  • Product/Brand Awareness
  • Name Recognition
  • Reputation
  • Corporate Citizenship
  • Financial Strength
  • Sales Ability
  • “Cool” Factor
  • Environmental Responsibility

Now, rate your competitors and yourself based on the criteria you’ve selected, with 5 being the best and 1 being the worst. Be as neutral as possible.

Here’s how your inputs should look:

Comparison CriteriaCompany/ProductRating
Price (Whatever you selected above)Widget A4
PriceWidget B5
PriceWidget C2
PriceUs3
QualityWidget A3
QualityWidget B5
QualityWidget C1
QualityUs5

Now, evaluate your ratings. Again, be as neutral as possible, especially when considering your own company. Think about the following:

  • In which categories did you score higher than average?
  • In which categories did you score lower than average?
  • Are there any categories with consistently low scores across the board? Can you focus on those categories to differentiate your offering?
  • Are your scores significantly different from those of many of your competitors? If not, the market may not see how you are different.
  • Can you improve your scores?
  • In what areas are you weak?
  • Can you improve on these weak areas? If so, what do you need, to improve them? And, should you improve them?

SWOT Analysis

After analyzing your competition and yourself, synthesize all the information into a SWOT analysis. This is a standard way to group the results from the previous exercise into a table format. It creates a powerful visual to use organizing your competitive strategy.

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Threats and Opportunities. Strengths and weaknesses are internal, controlled by you. Threats and opportunities are external, controlled by the market.

Now, summarize your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for each market.

Method for Delivering Value

The concept of “value proposition” evolved from Harvard Business School research and has been in the marketplace for decades. Some marketers refer to value proposition as a key selling point, or a differentiator used to persuade. We refer to the term “value proposition” as the method you use to deliver value to your market.

Here are the three methods for delivering value to your market:

Value PropositionDescription
Product LeadershipYour focus is innovation: new technologies, better products/services. Because your products are new, different and unique, your prices are likely to be higher than those of your competition, but you’re delivering a superior product/service.
Operational ExcellenceYou can deliver your product/service at a lower cost than that of your competitors, thanks to better manufacturing processes, better economies, or other advantages. Your product/service is typical for the category – not the best and not the worst. In mature industries, most companies are competing on operational excellence (costs); those companies that cannot produce at a lower price will lose in the market.
Customer IntimacyYour goal is to solve your customers’ problems with a broad portfolio or a customized set of products/services. You’re selling a relationship that is superior to the relationship offered by your competitors.

Most companies focus on one or two value propositions; it’s impossible to deliver on all three. Why? Here’s another way to think of it. Would you want to deliver a product/service that is the:

  • best in the market;
  • cheapest in the market; and
  • most comprehensive in the market?

Understanding how you deliver value to the market is important as you build your brand and interact with the market. It’ll bring clarity to decisions about your pricing, your distribution, your creative, your messaging, your marketing campaign design, your brand and your people.

Choose your primary value proposition and secondary value proposition if you have one. If you sell to multiple markets, you may wish to select your value proposition for each — complete this task for each market if they’re different.

Competitors’ Value Propositions

Now that you’ve selected your value proposition, it’s a good idea to understand the value propositions of your competitors in the marketplace. This will help as you consider your competitive positioning and the mindshare that you’d like to own.

For example, if all your competitors deliver value through operational excellence and you have an opportunity to focus on customer intimacy, you’ll have a better chance at differentiating yourself by moving, in the words of the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy, “out of the red ocean and into the blue ocean of uncontested market space.”

Your value proposition should be apparent in your company’s business strategy. Apple doesn’t worry about producing low-cost laptops, MP3 players and tablets because it’s entirely focused on innovation; Apple products typically cost more than the competition. Apple’s product development, branding, pricing and marketing campaigns support this.

Walmart doesn’t focus on innovation and product leadership; it focuses on creating cost efficiencies to deliver products at the lowest possible price. Its entire business model is built on operational excellence.

It’s possible that you might focus on delivering one type of value for one customer segment (or market) and a different type of value for another segment, so keep this in mind as you consider your entire product/service line and the markets you serve.

Competitive Positioning Strategy

Now it’s time to tie it all together. Consider the marketplace and the value propositions you and your competitors deliver. Are they identical? Are they different? Think about the problems your customers face, and take an objective look at the market. Pretend you’re a prospect. How cluttered is your market? Do you stand out? Does the competition stand out?

Competitive positioning is about owning a space in the market. It’s your “turf,” and the mindshare you own. In order to differentiate, what value should you focus on to beat your competition? For example, if all of your competitors offer the same value, it will be difficult to differentiate.

Think about your current market positioning and how you relate to your competitors. Take an objective view.

If you haven’t already decided on the mindshare you want to own, it may help to view your positioning on a map. There are numerous ways to approach this. 

You may wish to create your own positioning map to understand where you fit among your competitors. Grab a paper and pencil, and sketch positioning grids until you find one that works well for you. Name the X and Y axes with whatever is most relevant to your market. Remember, though, that this positioning is based on how the market perceives the brand, or the mindshare that it currently owns.

It’s not uncommon, for a company that currently owns a particular mindshare, to want to move to another. Or, maybe they don’t yet own any mindshare. That’s where strategy comes in, which is brought to life by the brand and the day-in and day-out marketing execution.

All of these factors influence your final competitive positioning strategy, which should be driven by a single statement: What is your long-term mindshare goal?

To obtain this mindshare over the long term, do you need to make any changes in order to fulfill your positioning strategy? For example, you may need to implement:

  • Changes to your product or service
  • New messages or methods for communicating with the market
  • New methods for pricing or distributing your product/service
  • Changes in your sales & marketing materials
  • Training programs to guide your team to deliver new messages
  • Manufacturing redesign
  • New brand imagery

This is no small undertaking, and it might take weeks or months to outline, and years or decades to obtain. It’s not something you can simply “put in the microwave” and hope it comes out fully baked.

But it’s worth expending the effort if you want to influence your market.

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